Monday, September 16, 2013

"How to Read the Bible as Literature . . . and Get More Out of It" by Leland Ryken: A Review

The following was written during my first semester of college in 2003. I am currently teaching a class on hermeneutics with Leland Ryken's book as one of the textbooks and so I pass along this old review for that reason.

Leland Ryken has written a basic hermeneutic guide on how to read the Bible that many have neglected in his book, "How to Read the Bible as Literature . . . and Get More Out of It." To read the Bible as literature and full of many different types of literature, ranging from parables to proverbs to poetry. The author seeks to introduce the reader to the reality and the importance of the various types of literature utilized in Scripture and how by reading the Bible as literature will open the reader to a more proper interpretation of the text.


Leland Ryken begins with a chapter on what biblical literature suggesting that "there is no book of the Bible that is not partly literary" (27). He argues that rather than view the Bible as a book of just propositions, we should rather view it as a collection of various forms of literature that must be interpreted in light of that literary method. In the end, the author’s goal is to introduce the reader to the various types of literature of in the Bible and how one should go about interpreting the text in light of the literary genre.

The first literary genre the author discusses is narrative. In order to rightly interpret narrative and story passages, one must first understand how stories work. The first rule of interpreting narrative is "look upon biblical stories as an invitation to share an experience, as vividly and concretely as possible, with the characters in the story" (34-35). Stories are based on three "ingredients: setting, characters, and plot" (37). The purpose of the story is found in understanding the flow of the story through its characters, background and setting, and the action.

The author then moves to poetry which "poetry is the most prevalent type of writing in the Bible" (87) next to story. "Poetry is a language of images" (89) that oftentimes expresses various experiences through means of metaphor, parallelism, repetition, symbolism, hyperbole, and personification. Therefore, poetic texts must be interpreted in light of their genres and the author gives concrete examples of each. The author follows his discussion on poetry with various types of poetry guiding the reader on how to interpret them.

Next, the author looks as proverbs which he defines as "a concise, memorable statement of truth" (121). The author walks the reader through how one proverbs are to be interpreted. He, then, moves quickly to the genre of Gospels. Gospels are very similar to stories but they are not the same. Although the similaries are striking, the differences separate them from classic narrative passages. "The Gospels are too episodic and fragmented, too self-contained int heir individual parts, and too thoroughly a hybrid form with interspersed nonnarrative elements to constitute this type of unified story" (132). In light of this clear difference, the author discusses how one must approach the gospels differently as classical narrative passages.

Parables remain a rather intriguing literature because they are unique and consists of elements of other genres. They must therefore be carefully studied and understood in light of its literary genre (the author goes into more detail on parables in the books appendix). Epistles, also, must be carefully understood within its literary genre. Epistles are quit different from poetry and narrative and thus introduces the reader to different challenges. The author begins gives a basic form of most of the epistles in the New Testament. Rather than follow the plot with its many characters, one must think in paragraphs and to understand the structure of the epistle.

From there, the author discusses satire and its frequent use throughout the entire Bible and how to interpret them giving a number of examples of their use in Scripture The author walks the reader through the various ways satire is used with some final comments on the power of satire in literature reminding the reader not to neglect this literary genre.

The final genre discussed is apocalyptic literature. The author begins by explain how to identify apocalyptic literature. But this raises the question, what is the point of such literature? The authors answer raises a number of issue but argues that "it gives us the shock treatment." To do so, symbolism is frequent used and the author explains the difficult task of interpreting visionary literature.

Ryken concludes by discussing the unity of literature in the Bible arguing that although the Bible is made up of many different literature genres, it is unique, unified, and complete. It is amazing to think that God has assembled dozens of authors from all walks of life to write in all genres of literature and yet each contribute to God’s unified story.

Critical Evaluation

One of the gifts that the author has is clarity. The author takes the various genres and explains them in a way that can be understood by anyone. This helps the reader reconsider their own hermeneutic and they gain insight into these various forms of literature. One example of this comes in his discussion regarding comedic narratives. The average reader comes to the book with an assumption of what a comedy is: a funny story that makes the reader laugh. The author, however, corrects that notion in a way that the reader, in a matter of sentences, is able to understand allowing them to correctly interpret the text. I was repeatedly struck by how simple much of what Ryken wrote is. By defining and describing a genre in such clear language allows the author to get straight to the point and apply how to correctly interpret Scripture.

I also found the chapter on satire as a literary genre important and insightful. Satire is ignored to most people. To understand how the Bible utilizes satire opens the interpreter up to a clearer understanding about a given text. The author seems to anticipate it. In this short chapter, the author provides the reader with example after example in order to prove the frequency of the genre. It is quit surprising some of the examples he gives illustrating satire. For example, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is rarely interpreted as both a parable and satiric, while at the same time, entire books are satiric (Jonah and Amos). These books are prophetic, yes, but they are also full of satire and must be understood and interpreted in light of that reality. This is a radical, yet necessary, shift into the art of hermeneutics for most believers and it is desperately needed.

The power of satire is highlighted by the author and rightly so. The strength of the message increases whenever satire is properly understood. "By framing truth as an attack on vice or folly, biblical satire drives its point home with an electric charge" (162). Its power, then, must be correctly understood, interpreted, and applied. The author has raised an issue, and called for the reader to recognize the importance of the issue, that we all need to consider and practice.

One criticism of Ryken is the limits of the book. Ryken does not, nor does he pretend to, provide an exhaustive look at the various genres in the Bible and how they function and operate. The author offers a very simple and straightforward book that introduces the subject of literary genre in the biblical record.. Ryken offers a wonderful introduction, but the average reader must wonder if there is more to this subject or is this just the beginning?


Overall, Leland Ryken offers an insightful book that many have missed. To apply the authors argument is to prevent the many dangerous interpretations that Christians today continue to repeat. Any proper hermeneutic must gravel with the truth that the Bible is made up of various genres of literature and thus must be interpreted in light of those genres and yet, at the same time, the fact that the Bible is unified as its various genres are complimentary should bring us to give God glory for His gift of His revelation to a people unworthy of its possession.

The Bible as Literature from Southern Seminary on Vimeo.
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